Edward Pitoniak ’78

We sat down with Ed Pitoniak ’78, real estate executive, canoe enthusiast and longtime supporter of the Amherst Fund, to talk about his experiences as an Amherst student and alumnus. We left with a new appreciation for what changes and what is constant at the College.

Why did you choose Amherst?

Ed Wall had a LOT to do with it. The legendary curator of the Amherst student body came to my high school, Northfield Mount Hermon, in the fall of 1973 and, after viewing my file, told my college counselor to STRONGLY encourage me to apply. When you’re a 17-year-old scholarship kid, even one at a boarding school, it’s very hard to know what is possible. Ed Wall may have played by his own rules, but his rules benefited kids like me who weren’t entirely certain where they might be truly welcomed in the college world. He welcomed me to Amherst.

What makes you most proud about this place?

Amherst grew and continues to grow out of the land I grew up in. I grew up in a farm family in nearby Westfield, along the very edge of the eastern Berkshire slope, and, though I haven’t lived in Western Massachusetts since my college days, I still know it as the land that formed me. Amherst is a global college, but I believe that Amherst is also a college local to its place. At least it was in my time, when, as an English major, I was privileged to study with professors like G. Armour Craig ’37, David Sofield and a few others who, at times, focused us on learning how to read the literature of New England and, through that literature, learning how to read the people and place of New England. I’m proud of Amherst being a college of its place. 

What makes you stay connected with Amherst even as you see it changing and evolving?

The people. Meaning my fellow classmates and alumni, with whom I continue to feel a bond built upon how we learned and what we learned, as well as the people of Amherst today—a faculty still built around people of brilliance and current students I’ve gotten to know through my mentoring and recruiting work. In early 2023, as president of my class at that time, I sent a letter to my classmates, asking them to be open minded to the idea that the college of today is still mainly built around people who greatly resemble the people of our time (which was, like now, a time of glorious and sometimes inglorious confusion). But you can only know that if you engage with the college community, both with those of us who came before and those who come now. 

What inspires you to give? 

Paying back. I was blessed to be the beneficiary of a nearly full scholarship. I know where the money for my scholarship came from. It came from those who had given. It has been my turn to give for the last 45 years or so. It will continue to be my turn till I’m gone. 

What's an Amherst story you love to tell?

In March of 1977, my junior year, there came a crazy warm Friday. It might have gotten to 80°. My dear friend—then and now—Phil Scott ’78, had a canoe. We decided to launch it into the Fort River near the grist mill, south of the college on 116. Our plan was to get to a pull-out on Bay Road before sunset. That was the totality of our plan. Did we look at a map? No. Did we understand that the Fort River is incredibly serpentine and probably meanders two to three times the miles a crow would fly that route? No. Did we really know how to paddle a canoe such that we wouldn’t dump ourselves into the March river water, twice? No. Did we make it to the pull-out by sunset? No. Did we have to ditch the canoe, trudge through a muddy field and hitch a ride in the open back of a pick-up truck as the temperature plunged? Yes. Was this all in a way a wonderful metaphor for what can be the unmapped adventure of being a liberal arts student? Yes. [Editor’s note: The canoe was retrieved and the paddle completed the next morning.]

War Memorial
What place at Amherst means the most to you and why?

The War Memorial, both for the spirit of service it memorializes and for the beauty of its outlook. 

What was your most memorable intellectual, creative, or fun Amherst experience?

Studying Nabokov with Dale Peterson, in the spring of 1977. Sitting in a ground-floor room of Barrett, enjoying (yes, enjoying) the smoke of Dale’s cigarette, spring air coming in through the open window, listening to Dale as he helped us learn how to read one of the greatest writers who ever lived. 

What was your most momentous day at Amherst?

The day I met my future wife. On a sunny Saturday in early September 1974, Kate Barber came over from Smith to buy a pair of Frye boots at the original Faces of Earth, set back from Pleasant Street. Kate and I had both graduated from NMH the prior spring. We didn’t know each other there. As I passed by the steps of Converse, where she waited for the Five College Bus back to Smith, we recognized each other. I sat on the steps with her and we chatted. We did not date in our college years. Our relationship blossomed when we were both in New York after college. We’ve been together ever since. Going back to what I said earlier, the Pioneer Valley explains a great deal of my life.  

Did you have a particular mentor here when you were a student?

So many. Jim Maranis. The experience of studying Shakespeare with Ben DeMott. Becoming a student and friend of Henry Bromell ’70. Peterson and [Stanley] Rabinowitz reading the Russians. But most of all G. Armour Craig ’37, whose Junior Autobiography course was perhaps the most enriching experience of self-discovery I’ve ever had. 

What do you think distinguishes Amherst from other schools like it?

Our enduring bonds, which, granted, have suffered strain in recent years, but nonetheless provide ties that can re-bind us for decades to come. 

What is your opinion about the relevance of a liberal arts education today?

Never been more important. Leadership is about unifying through shared recognition of reality…about acceptance of doubt, inherent tension and ambiguity… about forging a resolving vision and finding acceptable resolution on the other side of complexity. Narrow knowledge doesn’t make that happen. The ability to learn broadly and deeply does.